Thursday, 30 April 2015

Why the ID Community is not taken seriously - Part 1: Stephen Meyer

It’s been ten years since Justice John E Jones III reminded us in his Kitzmiller v. Dover trial verdict that intelligent design is not science, something that anyone remotely acquainted with mainstream science would recognise. Despite this, many in our community still appeal to the discredited arguments of the ID community.

Discredited is not too strong a word. Take the philosopher Stephen Meyer. His arguments have been well and truly eviscerated by evolutionary biologists. His 2004 article “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories” which was smuggled into a peer-reviewed journal by a creationist sympathiser without proper peer-review [1] was criticised by palaeontologist Alan Gishlick, evolutionary biologist Nick Matzke, and marine biologist Wesley R. Elsberry who noted how Meyer “merely construct[ed] a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations.” [2]

Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell in which he alleged that biological information and life could not have developed naturally likewise failed to set the scientific world on fire. Biologist and former BioLogos president Darrel Falk in his review noted that
“[t]here is no question that large amounts information have been created by materialistic forces over the past several hundred million years. Meyer dismisses this without discussing it. What about at the very beginning, 3.5 billion years ago? Everyone doing the science, Meyer notwithstanding, would say the jury is still out. There are some very elegant feasibility experiments going on at the present time. However, it is far too early for a philosopher to jump into the fray and declare no further progress will be made and that this science is now dead. If the object of the book is to show that the Intelligent Design movement is a scientific movement, it has not succeeded. In fact, what it has succeeded in showing is that it is a popular movement grounded primarily in the hopes and dreams of those in philosophy, in religion, and especially those in the general public.” [3]
Developmental biologist Steve Matheson’s extensive review noted elementary errors, such as confusing bacteria with viruses:
A person who would make that mistake – and leave it in his awesome, groundbreaking treatise on 21st-century biological science – is a person who doesn't think very much about viruses or bacteria. A person who would make that mistake is a non-specialist. A layperson. And of course, Stephen Meyer is a layperson. He's clearly not a biologist, or even a person who's particularly knowledgeable about biology. (That paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington became infamous due to political disputes; I thought it was most notable for being lame.) This is obvious from my reading of this book and his other work, and the mistake on page 66 just serves to remind me that despite the thunderous praise from fans on the dustjacket and in the ID-osphere, Meyer just isn't all that impressive as a scientific thinker. Call me a jerk, but I expect a hell of a lot more from someone who wants to rewrite science (and its history). [4]
Geneticist Dennis Venema likewise found Meyer’s arguments underwhelming:
“Signature in the Cell represents a layman’s attempt to overturn an entire field of research based on a surface-level understanding (and, at times, significant misunderstanding or ignorance) of the relevant science, published in a form that bypasses review by qualified peers, and that is marketed directly to a nonspecialist audience. This is not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense.” [5]
Meyer’s follow-up book Darwin’s Doubt, which alleged that the Cambrian explosion was problematic for evolution likewise was received poorly. Nick Matzke’s review noted Meyer’s failure to grasp that the Cambrian ‘explosion’, which took place over around 30 million years could hardly be called sudden, his ignorance of phylogenetics and modern taxonomy, his tendency to quote mine, and in his conclusion noted:
“Even without addressing all of these other issues in depth, I think the above shows that Meyer’s book is already holed beneath the waterline on the key issues of Cambrian paleontology, phylogenetics, and the information argument. I’m not sure it deserves much more of anyone’s time.”
Vertebrate palaeontologist Donald Prothero, likewise was scathing:
“Meyer now blunders into another field in which he has no research experience or advanced training: my own profession, paleontology. I can now report that he’s just as incompetent in my field as he was in molecular biology. Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. [7]
Palaeontologist Charles Marshall, whose field of expertise is the Cambrian era - the subject of Meyer’s book - likewise points out the deeply flawed nature of Meyer’s book:
“Despite its readability and a plethora of scholarly references, however, there are substantial omissions and misrepresentations. For example, Meyer completely omits mention of the Early Cambrian small shelly fossils and misunderstands the nuances of molecular phylogenetics, both of which cause him to exaggerate the apparent suddenness of the Cambrian explosion.” 
“As Meyer points out, he is not a biologist; so perhaps he could be excused for basing his scientific arguments on an outdated understanding of morphogenesis. But my disappointment runs deeper than that. It stems from Meyer's systematic failure of scholarship. For instance, while I was flattered to find him quote one of my own review papers (2)—although the quote is actually a chimera drawn from two very different parts of my review—he fails to even mention the review's (and many other papers') central point: that new genes did not drive the Cambrian explosion. His scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective.” [8]
The last paragraph is damning, as it points out how Meyer deliberately quote mined Marshall. The last sentence “his scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective”, coming from an expert in the field whose work Meyer quote mined is enough to destroy Meyer’s credibility completely.

One would trust that those in our community who appeal to Meyer would realise that this ID idol very much has feet of clay, and is a reed who will pierce the hands of those who lean on it.



2. Gishlick A, Matzke N, Elsberry W.R. "Meyer's Hopeless Monster" Panda's Thumb Aug 24 2004

3. Falk D "Signature in the Cell" BioLogos Blog Dec 28 2009

4. Matheson S "Signature in the Cell: Chapter 3" Quintessence of Dust 6 Feb 2010

5. Venema D "Seeking a Signature" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:276-283

6. Matzke N "Meyer's Hopeless Monster - Part II" Panda's Thumb June 19 2013

7. Prothero D "Stephen Meyer's Fumbling Bumbling Amateur Cambrian Follies" SkepticBlog Aug 28 2013

8. Marshall C.R. "When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship" Science (2013) 341:1344